Picking up after the meat axe: on the future of I-95’s orphaned parcels

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The story of Interstate 95’s savaging of our city is fairly well known.  It’s also a road that has engendered fertile thinking on how to re-knit our city back to our river: perhaps through an unbroken series of lid parks bridging over the yawning moat, perhaps through the road’s elimination altogether?  Yet as skeptics point out, these megaprojects will consume sums of public money and involve massive state and federal transportation bureaucracies.  The result is that we will measure such projects in decade-long increments.  In the meantime there’s the lower hanging fruit of hundreds–if not thousands–of small casualties of urban road building: irregular off-limits parcels in the shadows of Interstate’s vast infrastructure.  They’re gradually forming their own odd ecologies, as a whole they comprise a strange, muted and sometimes beautiful neglectscape.

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These were spaces formed from by the logic of roadbuilding in a highly parcelized urban world.   I-95, as you have probably noticed, was not designed to be a straight highway.  It bends in minute degrees, it spills out sinuous onramps and offramps, it grades up and down.  As this curvaceous superhighway slithered across the city it crossed old rectilinear parcels adhering to the methodical grid of Thomas Holme.


Anywhere the road touched, be it ever so small, the nation needed.  Yet there was no means to be more precise–eminent domain is a blunt tool–of course it was the infamous “meat axe” of Robert Moses.  The government either pays for it all or takes it all, there is no time for fine parsing of one section’s utility versus another.  In this way, the government often condemned land for a laudable public purpose, though arguably these spaces now fail to meet the public’s other legitimate needs.


Let’s keep thinking about covering over I-95.  At the same time, let’s also think about how the other detached parcels can be reintegrated into our efforts to improve access to quality open space.   Though the city mostly doesn’t want to take on a constellation of microparks, residents usually have no problem maintaining them.  Neighbors use these spaces as dogparks and sculpture gardens, cutthroughs and respites; they open and close them, police them and cut the grass when contractors for the largely unknown Interstate Land Management Corporation (ILMAC) are tardy in their rounds.  Yet few know the process for gaining real ownership over these lands.  PennDOT, however, has been increasingly generous in offering these lands to the City.



Just south of the southbound I-95 ramps onto Penn’s Landing and Washington Avenue and just above Catharine on the west side of Delaware Avenue sits one such parcel.  Thousands pass it every day.  You’ve probably passed it hundreds of times.  Resembling a mini-savanna with high grasses and moderately aged trees, it rises gently but noticeably from Delaware Avenue to 10-15’ above the river to the soundwall of 95.  At the onramp and Delaware Avenue it presents a kind of formal Olmstedian entrance.  After passing through a porous chain link fence at Swanson and Queen a strong northeasterly desire line (following the old property line) cuts down a valley along an archaic fenceline to the busy intersection.

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Yet it didn’t always sport these contours.  In the mid-19th century Swanson St. was less of a cartway and more of a railroad.  It continued dead northward to South Street at a level grade.  In the middle of the 19th century, Swanson met a broad fan-like plaza called Davis’ Landing, later to become Davis St.  Swanson was a virtual canyon of low-rise warehouses with portals fronting the street for moving goods.  In the below 1950 image, a truck awkwardly navigates the cobblestone street. By the time of  1973 Dick Swanson photo taken from Catharine and Swanson, the railroads had outlived their utility, the land around it barren, prepared for I-95.


These 4.6 acres, divided between two undetermined owners, exists as a classic example of the vast vegetated neglectscape adjacent to our highways.  Clearly people from the adjacent homes use it.  With a small hillock crowned with trees and pelts of high grasses sloping down the valley to the Delaware, it reminds me of a kind of overgrown first leg of an Olympic Sculpture Park.  This Weiss-Manfredi-designed sculpture garden in Seattle embraces a workaday highway system with sloped walkways concealing the bustle.  The inclines tend to multiply the volume of the park by creating enclosed planes which vault up and across the roadway.  This parcel also ascends to a 10’ rise at its westernmost section offering excellent views of the river through finger piers.  The gentle slope has the makings of a kind of mini-Mann Center.  A corridor of dense plantings and sloped turf continues behind the residences on Swanson St. and terminates at a high fence at Christian St., catty-corner to Gloria Dei.  This slope is both a wonderful insulator of I-95 and a possible connector to what could be called Davis’ Landing Park.


I-95 giveth and she taketh away.  It annoys our efforts to get to the river yet it provides hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians access to the opportunities created in Center City.  It obliterated entire neighborhoods in its direct path, it has sunk deep frustrating chasms, it provides thousands daily with quick access through the city, yet on its margins it left a vast archipelago of unused, locked spaces.  Because the road deformed the basic topography of the city, these are spaces with strange dimensions, slopes, angles and curves.  They are half-hewn and laden with potential.  There’s a lot of really smart people thinking about how to reconnect Center City to the Delaware.  We need to devote just as much attention to developing policy and action to bring these curious spaces back to the public on whose behalf they were taken.


6 thoughts on “Picking up after the meat axe: on the future of I-95’s orphaned parcels

  1. Robert Moses would have turned the riverfront parcles cut off by the ‘meat ax’ of the expressway into waterfront parks. Much like surface parking lots left over from the ‘urban redevelopment’ between 1955-1975, the unused, unloved spaces along the delaware river waterfront are a valuble asset for creating the 21st century city. Planning and development take generations. While these parcles may appear as leftovers they will one day be the main course of a modern city connected to waterfront. great post chris, always stimulating and thought provocking.

  2. These photos remind me of Potsdammerplatz, Berlin,just after the Wall came down in 1989. Teh site of Berlin’s busiest square, was redcued to ruble in Wrold War Two, and tehn left as a wide afterthought after the Berlin Wall was built. The “death strip” at Potsdammerplatz was hundreds of yards wide.Today Potsdammerplatz has reemerged as one of the city’s most modern business districts.

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